Introduction To NLP Anchoring 7: State Elicitation

Eliciting a stateIt’s worth saying something about how to elicit states in people, because this is one area that I think isn’t given enough attention in many NLP books and even courses. It’s important, because if the state isn’t strong, you’ve got nothing to anchor.

The client might go through the motions because they think that’s what you want, but the anchor won’t work unless you’ve elicited a strong, congruent state.

First of all, remember that the best time to anchor a state is when it’s happening naturally. If you see a useful state happening – in a meeting, or a sales call, or a presentation – anchor it with a look, a word, a gesture, or a voice tone.

You never know when that could come in useful. It’s pretty obvious how it could be useful to you to be able to set off an anchor for laughter, or curiosity, or motivation, whenever you need to.

And you can also make use of unpleasant states as well – impatience can be a useful thing to get a group to access if all the useful work in a meeting has been concluded and it’s just dragging on. Disappointment can be a useful anchor in a sales situation, if the customer is talking about a competitor – and so on.

You may be thinking “Hang on a minute! Covertly anchoring responses – that’s a bit sneaky, isn’t it? I don’t think I’d be comfortable doing that!” Well, that’s right – you don’t think you’d be comfortable doing that, but the fact is that you already do that all the time, without realising it. Everyone does.

If one of your friends tells you “We heard today that there’s going to be redundancies at our office” and you go “Ohhh”, consciously you’re expressing sympathy, but on an out-of-conscious-awareness level you’re also anchoring that emotion of anxiety that the friend is feeling as they tell you about it.

And if you were to go “Ohhh” at some point later in the conversation, when they do something trivial like spill some of their drink on the table, they’re going to feel the same anxiety, without knowing why. That’s covert anchoring – covert even to the person who is doing it, because they don’t realise what they are doing. So to really communicate responsibly, you need to be aware of the anchors that you use.

Now, if you’re doing a formal, set-piece bit of anchoring work, you’re probably going to be getting your client to associate into a memory. Maybe I’m exceptionally picky, or slow to get into a state, but for me, the wording that many books and trainers suggest you use to get someone to access a state just doesn’t work. That wording is along the lines of “Can you remember a time when you were totally <whatever the state is>?

Why is that not the best wording to use? Because of something called ‘state dependent memory’. Our emotional states are tied up with the way that our brains store memories. I’m not sure if the neuroscientists have worked out every detail of the mechanism yet, but what it means in practice is that how you are feeling at any given time influences how easy it is to recall memories associated with a given emotion.

So when you’re feeling happy, it’s easy to recall other times when you are happy. If someone’s feeling miserable, it’s quite hard for them to recall happy memories. They might be aware that they had some, and even of what they were, but it’s not easy for them to associate into those memories and relive them.

If someone is feeling apathetic, for example, and you ask them a closed question like “Can you remember a time when you were totally motivated?” what they might very easily do is think for a moment, not come up with a memory straight away, and say “No, not really.”

It’s much better in my experience to ask open questions that kind of sidle up on the desired state and get them in the mood first, before you ask the person to access a specific memory.

So you could ask questions like this, that move from the general to the specific:

  1. What is it like when you feel happy/excited/curious/determined/etc?
    (notice the presupposition that they do feel like that sometimes. And it’s an open question – in order to answer it, they have to try out having the feeling.)
  2. When do you feel like that?
    (Again, there’s a presupposition that they do feel like that sometimes. You’re going for what kinds of situations, which gets them reviewing their memories associated with that state.)
  3. Pick a specific time… a really good one
  4. As you go back to that time now … go right into that memory and relive it… What are you seeing? What are you hearing? What are you feeling? And turn those feelings of <desired emotional state> up even higher…

What if you’re aiming to elicit a state that there don’t seem to be any specific memories for? Actually this is unlikely, as most people have experienced most resource states at some point in their lives. So if you’re looking for something to anchor in yourself, I’d say keep remembering until you find it – you may surprise yourself if you ask your unconscious mind to recall certain pleasant memories, when you experienced resourceful emotional states that could help you now or in the future…

When you’re helping someone else to set an anchor, they may not find an appropriate memory, and they may genuinely believe that they haven’t ever experienced the resource state that they want, or if they have they don’t remember it.

What you can do here is to ask them to identify a role model who really personifies that state. Who do they think of as “Mr Determination” or “Ms Confidence”? This could be someone in their family, someone they know, or a film star or public figure. Ask them – what would it be like to be that person? Get them to act ‘as if’ they were that person – how do they stand, how do they walk, how do they talk? Get the person to imagine their way into a fully associated resource state – and anchor that.

A couple of other tips about state elicitation. If you are going for a high-energy state, it’s best to be standing up or even moving about, because mind and body are one system. If someone is sitting in an armchair, especially one that encourages them to slump or recline, they are half way to being asleep already. That’s OK for states like relaxation, but they are not going to be able to access energy, motivation or curiosity from that posture.

Also, if you’re assisting someone into a state, go into that state yourself. This is for two reasons: one is congruence. If you say “Now I want you to remember a time when you were really excited” in a quiet monotone, the words are saying ‘get excited’ but the voice tone is saying ‘be bored’.

The other reason is ‘pacing and leading‘.

If you are in rapport with someone, and you go into a state, then they are going to follow you there, as long as you go into it smoothly and naturally. They’ll go at least some of the way with you, and it’s OK for you to actually go a little bit further into the state than you want them to go.

Finally, notice what’s going on! Calibrate the external signals of state change, and don’t set the anchor until you can really see that the state is changing.

Here’s an audio version of this article, from the Practical NLP Podcast

If you want all my tips about anchoring in one easy-to-read e-book, get Practical NLP 4: Submodalities And Anchoring

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